Thursday, 16 March 2017

Of Mutability

Agricultural objects, detritus, artefacts from the consumer-age lay to rust, surfaces weathered, worn and washed with time, light travels across coastal vales, misty veils and illusions of by-gone places, nostalgia, memories, horizons, distances and journeys. Nothing is ever fixed. Nothing stays ever the same. In the words of Percy Shelley's famous poem, ‘Nought may endure but mutability’.
Mutability is a good word, I’ve decided. Its official that I also think it is a good word to describe the transformations of the landscape and our place as equally changeable beings within it; and how that process works both ways for both better and sometimes not. This should be nothing of a revelation to many, countless poets, writers and artists have been writing on mutability and the landscape for years before the idea settled into my post-arts degree addled brain. In fact, it was the word,  muted rather than mutability, that first sprang to mind upon seeing the work exhibited in ‘The Transformed Land’ currently on show at The Brewhouse Arts Centre in Taunton.
Eleanor Goulding, Linn O'Carroll and Russell Denman's work
exhibited as part of 'The Transformed Land' 
 Muted, in that the colour (or lack-of) and general sense of a feeling of quiet or mute distilment, permeated the works within this exhibition. Featuring the work of 14 artists there are one or two exceptions to this observation, notably David Daniels’s bold, bright, graphic, stylised, Julian Opie-like digital prints of lonely winding rivers, streams and hillsides. Where there is colour in other works it is controlled, reserved, sparing. Jason Miller’s watercolours quietly hum with the delicate quivering, glow of a Rothko and David Smith’s collaged mixed-media pieces also use traces of colour but in a formalistic way. They appear considered and reflective rather than spontaneous. Andrew George’s egg tempera pieces of big, dramatic coastal landscapes are executed with superb scale and technical ability with a colour palette that is both natural but also nostalgic and reminiscent of post-war landscape artists such as Eric Ravillious’s paintings. And they really are BIG paintings with fine detail that do a great job at drawing the viewer in.
Andrew George 'Coastal Path Dorset' Egg tempera on gesso panel. 
I have no problems with my perceived lack of colour in this exhibition, it demonstrates that the work within it is on the whole very contemplative; these are artists whose work reflects that they must spend time in the places they depict, go for walks, take photos, make sketches, match colours, collect objects, materials and see how the landscape changes over time. The only perhaps pitfall to this is that perhaps there is too much work in this exhibition that is careful and not enough that appears as a spontaneous or immediate reaction or capturing of the landscape. This reflects perhaps, the interests of the exhibition’s curator, Paul Newman whose own work, graphite drawings of trees and landscapes is very precise and technically masterful as they are sensitively observed. Similarly, the wood engravings of Howard Phipps are competent as they are crowd-pleasing images of countryside it’s just that personally I would like to have seen in addition to these some more work that took less caution, reflection and tranquillity and perhaps demonstrated an immediate reaction or the wildness and sometimes fearful relationship we have with land and landscape.

Howard Phipps 'Malacombe Bottom' Wood engraving.
One artist’s work who does counterbalance this slightly in this exhibition is Andrew Lansley whose drawings show a lot of personality and are taken from views sometimes literally on his doorstep. They have more of that sense of immediacy that I was looking for, the other is Clive Walley whose depictions of trees are amongst the more painterly works in the exhibition. The other, for me personally is Linn O’Carroll. Based on the lived-experience of walking in South Wiltshire where the artist has lived for the last twenty years; found, discarded rusty objects ranging from a shopping basket, hay forks, hooks, pliers and hundreds of nails lay seemingly systematically placed in a circular motif on a weathered (what I presume were former carpet tiles) surface on the gallery floor. It is a calendar, a Tony Cragg meets Goldsworthy and amazing Dutch artist herman de vries all at once; an infinity of lists and one of possibly three pieces in the whole exhibition that refers to the manmade in the environment and that our relationship with land may not always be a harmonious one. These are honest fragments, readymade art in some ways and for me, greater reflect a real sense of time, weather and the relationship some humans have with land than some of the representational or abstract works.   
Linn O'Carroll
Elsewhere in the exhibition Russell Denman’s wooden models of huts continue the manmade theme and whilst fascinatingly constructed I am a bit less sure of where they fit into the overall exhibition other than as posing as possible designs for dwellings within the landscape? Eleanor Goulding’s digital HD video ‘Spring Observances’ is beautifully shot depicting a stranded, made derelict  by rust, ship on the coast. I am visually biased being drawn to such images, finding the traces of where humans have interacted with land more fascinating than the idealised, haunting or romantic emptiness of ones without. Is it possible, I wonder to ‘know’ the landscape without the human in it? If not then it seems a relevant decision that so many artists try to detach the human presence from their work.
Andrew Lansley 'Leaving Dartmoor' Egg tempera
Where ‘The Transformed Land’ really excels is at having a diverse array of mediums on display, from woodcut, to painting, to drawing, sculpture and conceptual as well as representational based practices. At the more conceptual end of the scale, Deborah Westmancoat’s work combines weather-like processes of evaporation and flooding with materials of handmade oak gall ink and collected water from glaciers. It shares its approach with several other works in this exhibition that imply a response to landscape that is seasonal, site specific or one of measuring, collecting and documenting. It feels museum-like, a form of attempting to preserve it through documentation.
It is rewarding to have been introduced to the work of so many new artists in this exhibition, my only small regret is the unfortunate timing that makes this exhibition the third show in a row at The Brewhouse to explore the theme of land, landscape, the sea or the environment and I hope that it doesn't dilute people's interest in seeing this exhibition or thinking it is the same as previous ones, as it is quietly captivating and deserves to be seen with open eyes. 
You can visit ‘The Transformed Land’ at The Brewhouse Arts Centre, Taunton until April 29th 2017

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